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March 14, 2011

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Magical moments on a glacier

Hailuogou Glacier Park in Sichuan Province is the first glacier developed as tourist attraction in China. Zhu Moqing straps on his crampons and marvels at sunrise, icefalls and other magic.

The morning broke clear and crisp, with the winter chill sweeping in through valleys. The dense fog, which frequently envelops this mountain area and obscures the sunrise, had given way to a smooth sky and some fading stars.

I rushed out and climbed to an elevated area, 3,000 meters above sea level at Camp 3 of Hailuogou Glacier Park in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. The camp, originally for glacier exploration, now offers tourist accommodation and is a preferred spot to watch sunrise.

Nearby forests of pine and fir trees, each 20 to 30 meters tall with branches covered in snow, looked black and white in the dim light. Above the treetops were slopes covered with more forests in black and white and further up loomed two rocky peaks, completely capped in snow.

Puffs of clouds formed from ice crystals blown off the peaks gradually turned into flames, catching the first light and welcoming the sun. The color shift was breathtaking. The pale snowy peaks first were washed with pink and then brushed with gold. Eventually, as the snow glimmered with the full spectrum of sunlight, the peaks turned silver.

This event is known as rizhao jinshan, literally "golden mountain at sunrise," a magnet for visitors and photographers in the snowy mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region. The two inns at Camp 3 are named Gold Mountain and Silver Mountain hotels.

In fact, those two luminous mountains are part of a much larger mountain, Mt Gongga, also known as Minya Konka, the highest peak in Sichuan, standing more than 7,000 meters.

I went in late November when it was snowy and bright but because of the intense sun and reflected heat I didn't feel too cold. There are fewer tourists in winter as well, so I savor it without too many human companions.

The mountain's formidable eastern slope runs from the towering peaks to the bottom of Dadu Gorge, a drop of more than 6,500 meters in height - it also covers seven climate belts.

It is this combination of location, altitude and scale that gave birth to the biggest icefall in China, a major section of Hailuogou Glacier No.1, the first glacier developed as a tourist attraction in the country.

I first came across verses on glaciers and particularly icefalls in Samuel Coleridge's "Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni" (1802) in which the English romanticist portrayed the icefalls of Mont Blanc as torrents "that heard a mighty voice and stopped at once amid their maddest plunge."

By contrast, glaciers and snow mountains have never been part of the Chinese landscape aesthetic until the past two decades. One searches in vain for odes to glaciers among shanshui poems, or Chinese proses about natural landscapes and sceneries.

The remoteness and ruggedness of the mountains might have prevented the ill-equipped ancients from appreciating them. But the main reason, according to Shan Zhiqiang, editor-in-chief of Chinese National Geography, is that the ancients perceived mountains by relative heights rather than the modern concept of altitude. As a result, peaks in China's west might have appeared unimpressive compared with, say Mt Taishan in the east, which soars almost from sea level.

When the Hailuogou Glacier Park opened to the public in 1987, few tourists turned up. Today, the park has become a popular tourist destination, only 380 kilometers from Sichuan's capital city Chengdu. Its popularity may be attributed to the increasing demand for pristine nature by urbanites, the development of outdoor sports, as well as efforts of snow-mountain advocates, such as Shan.

Also contributing to the glacier's popularity is its accessibility, since Glacier No.1 is the lowest glacier on the same latitude in China. As I rode up from Camp 3 in an Austrian-built cable car to 3,600-meter Camp 4, I immediately noticed the glacier's ice tongue plunging into a fir forest at an unusually low altitude for glaciers.

The 15-minute ride served as an aerial tour of the ice tongue. As the slopes gradually fell away, the giant Hailuogou Icefall came into view in unbelievable brilliance. Hailuogou glaciers usually appear muddy, covered with moraine or rock debris. It resembles what Shan describes as "a gargantuan construction site." But I was fortunate - the previous week's snowfalls had blanketed the glacier and concealed the rocks. I had made a wise decision to visit during the low winter season.

The icefall, more than 1,000 meters tall and wide, defied my search for words. Nor could its grandeur be captured in photos, since there was nothing for size-comparison. Only when I later zoomed my photos to full size on my computer screen did I make out the figures of tourists walking on the glacier like ants crossing a garden trail.

I soon joined the tiny figures in my photos, taking a zigzag path down onto the glacier from Camp 4. Makeshift crampons borrowed at the park entrance were very useful on the steep, snowy descent, without railings. Nearby the glacier stood, as Coleridge put it, "motionless torrents, silent cataracts."

Then I heard distant rumblings of minor avalanches and realized the glacier is by no means static and still.

In fact, the Hailuogou glaciers are extremely active since they receive abundant monsoon precipitation; they are categorized as marine-type glaciers. The flowing moraines of soil and rock are the result of the glaciers' powerful yet barely perceptible abrasion against the landscape.

Trudging through the moraines, I saw huge chunks of jagged and dirty ice buried under snow, which at first seemed like rocks. But then I noticed a mysteriously blue shimmer, reflected light, from gaps on the chunks' surface.

Surprisingly, I never felt very cold on the glacier. After hours of radiation from the piercing high-altitude sunlight, vapor was rising above snowy ground and sparkling pools dotted the snow scene.

It was a magical place where the three forms of water coexist in balance. But more magical is the process by which old snow from past seasons on distant peaks metamorphoses into a firn (compacted snow recrystallized into a denser substance) basin - a transitional stage between snow and ice.

Due to an awkward perspective, the main peak of Mt Gongga, once miscalculated as the world's highest by legendary American explorer Joseph Rock, appeared in the far distance as unexpectedly dwarfed. Off the peak, blown streaks of clouds fill the sky with turbulent and fast changing formations, the only reminder of turbulence around the visually tranquil peak.

Mt Gongga stands 7,556 meters above sea level and actually poses a far greater mountaineering challenge than Mt Qomolongma (Mt Everest) and even the notorious K2 in the Karakoram Range. To date, 37 climbers died in their attempts to conquer it, while only 24 reached the summit.

Tourists were not allowed to proceed very far on the glacier because the spongy snow concealed deadly crevasses hundreds of meters deep. But I would like to imagine that deep in the abyss is a huge labyrinthine crystal palace, unmatched by any man-made structure. Light enters the palace through reflection and refraction projects kaleidoscopic patterns. Water cascades down through countless tunnels, converges at the end of the glacier to form streams down slopes and valleys and becomes raging rivers that fill the nearby Dadu Gorge.

Robert Macfarlane in his "Mountains of the Mind" explains why people admire mountains and other landscapes. He thinks a landscape is in fact "a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans." But he also notes that "stone, rock and ice are significantly less amenable to the hand's touch than to the mind's eye."

Truly, accompanying my visual exhilaration and freed imagination were unforgettable exertions, such as the struggle for balance on snow slopes and the breathlessness, partly caused by altitude, after ascending the cragged path.

Fortunately, the strains on my body soon dissipated in the outdoor hot spring pools of the renowned Hailuogou Spa of Camp 2, at around 2,600 meters. Pools range in temperature from 38-50 degrees Celsius.

Soaking in a steamy pool, I meditated over a lush valley that was transitioning to sunset, the reverse of the snowy peaks I had witnessed transitioning to a pink, golden and silver sunrise. I marveled at this journey of body and soul and took pride in the miraculous landscapes and experiences that China's long neglected west has to offer.

If you go

How to get there:

From Xinnanmen Coach Station in Chengdu (57 Linjiang Rd), a coach departs daily at 10am for Hailuogou. The trip takes 6 to 8 hours, depending on road conditions, and is one of the most spectacular travel experiences. It's a continuous ascent from the misty Sichuan Basin onto the rugged Hengduan Range through the magnificent Dadu Gorge. Returning coach departs at 8am from Hailuogou.

At the entrance of Hailuogou Glacier Park, you can change for a park shuttle bus that takes you to Camp 3, stopping at Camp 2 for hot spring. The trip from the entrance to Camp 3 takes about an hour and the last bus departs at 5:30pm.


? Take a Chinese-speaker since very few locals speak English.

? Snow boots, crampons and sunglasses are essential for visiting the glacier in winter. You can rent gear, or take your own.

? Sunscreen is critical.

? Some people may experience altitude sickness at Camp 4.


? Coach from Chengdu to Hailuogou (One way): 103 yuan (US$16)? Hailuogou Glacier Park: 72 yuan? Shuttle bus in park (return): 80 yuan? Cable car from Camp 3 to Camp 4 (return): 150 yuan? Hailuogou Spa at Camp 2: 100 yuan


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